Pavement had so many amazing moments in their historic four-night run in Brooklyn. But one of the funniest came on Sunday night, after the legendary Nineties indie jesters took a ramshackle stab at “Spit on a Stranger.” Stephen Malkmus shrugged and told the crowd, “That was a version of that song.” A typically bitchy quip — but it also showed off the band’s brazen confidence. All four nights in Brooklyn’s Kings Theater, Pavement didn’t just go back to those gold soundz — they took them somewhere new. And all four nights felt like a gloriously surreal celebration of this band’s gloriously surreal legacy.
The last time Pavement did a reunion tour, in 2010, they had to prove they could get away with it: ex-magicians who still knew the tricks. But this time, there was no suspense, only payoffs. In Brooklyn, even a longtime fan had to be shocked at how far these guys kept pushing, musically and emotionally, especially since Malkmus is a massively better guitarist than he was in his not-exactly-slack youth. On Sunday night, after they stretched “Folk Jam” into a psychedelic twin-guitar mash-up with Television’s 1977 classic “Marquee Moon,” Malkmus introduced the band as “Phishport Convention.”
Each Brooklyn show had a different set and a different vibe. Night One was “mellow gold jams,” Night Two was “high-energy deep cuts,” Night Three was “high-personality hard jams,” and Night Four was “mellow gold deep cuts.” (Night Three was my fave, but all four had their partisans.) The band’s high-flying enthusiasm carried them through an exhilarating rush — 25 songs in two hours, rampaging all over their catalog, rocking the house each night with a couple dozen of the greatest tunes ever written for electrically amplified string instruments. I met fans who’d traveled from all over the world — it felt like a festival.
Pavement did surefire classics like “Gold Soundz” and “Range Life,” from their 1994 Crooked Rain, Crooked Rain, the best album of the Nineties that isn’t Slanted and Enchanted. They also stretched out for pensive jams on “Pueblo,” “Type Slowly,” and their gorgeous hippie version of Jim Pepper’s Native American jazz chant “Witchi Tai To.”
On the other hand, punk blowouts like “Debris Slide” came on rowdier than ever. They busted out obscure fan faves: “Give It a Day,” “Home,” “Spizzle Trunk,” “Half a Canyon,” even “Gangsters and Pranksters.” After an attack on “Two States,” Scott “Spiral Stairs” Kannberg explained, “We were listening to the Fall before we went on.” Malkmus added, “We listen to the Fall in fall, Rites of Spring in spring.”
It’s weird how much the Pavement mystique has expanded in the past few years. Who would have bet on “Harness Your Hopes,” an obscure B side choogle, blowing up into a TikTok/Spotify viral hit, 20 years after they crazily left it off the album? At this point, it’s their biggest crowd-pleaser. But Pavement played their belated hit with bemused affection. As Malkmus said Friday night, “No one told us that song was good in, like, 2010.” (All these years, I assumed “Madonna del Verona” was a Renaissance statue or something. It was only this weekend when a young stranger in the beer line explained to me why she idolizes Olympic swimmer Donna De Verona.)
Pavement first announced these reunion gigs in 2020 — right before the pandemic intervened and pushed it all back for a couple of years. The delay could have killed the buzz, but not on this tour. People were fiending for these shows, and clearly, so was the band. In one of their best outtakes, “Circa 1762” (tragically unplayed on this tour), Malkmus declares, “We light the burnt match! Light the burnt match! And stick a flag on it.” That could be the mission statement.
The exuberance onstage never flagged. Bob Nastanovich was the MVP hype man — if every band needs a glue guy to hold it all together, Bob’s got to be the stickiest glue guy ever, lifting everyone’s mood into the rafters. Having the world’s biggest Pavement fan onstage is one of the shrewdest moves this band ever made, whether he’s dancing, singing, banging a tambourine, or launching ping-pong balls into the crowd. As Malkmus said the first night, “Bob is prowling that stage like a cheetah.” (Later that weekend, he added, “One of the toughest jobs in show business. Or one of the easiest — we’re not sure.”)
The band got a welcome boost from Portland, Oregon, musician Rebecca Cole, from Wild Flag and the Spells, who added her magic on keyboards and vocals. Bassist (and Brooklynite) Mark Ibold gave a festive shout-out to the locals: “Park Slope! Greenpoint! Sunnyside! LES!” Malkmus warmly saluted Spiral Stairs as “the long-suffering member of Pavement.” He also raved about drummer Steve West, saying, “He’s having a great one tonight, and I’ve seen ‘em all.” On Sunday, Malkmus called West “a young man from Central Virginia — he calls it the Valley.” Then the California boy mused, “I’m from a different valley … Valley of the New York Dolls.”
A typical stroke was “Major Leagues”: Like a lot of their music, it sounds like a song the gods wrote for a different band, but accidentally sent to Pavement instead. The tune is so beautifully fragile, Malkmus could only ease into it by matching it to his most flippantly bitchy lyrics, to the point where it’s comedy gold. (I mean, he actually sings the line, “Relationships, hey hey hey.”) But the wit is there to protect you (and him) from the ache in the melody, until he murmurs, “Cater to my walls and see if they fall,” one of his most piercingly true lines about outgrowing your twentysomething defenses. On Friday, he sang this line as if he were bored; Sunday, he sang it like he’d been waiting for this moment all day.
Because Pavement debuted in 1989 and broke up in Y2K, they’re linked with the Nineties, but the truth is that young fans today hear this band way more clearly and more creatively than previous generations did. As with Joni Mitchell, Sade, or Dolly Parton, Pavement resonate on a deeper level to listeners who come to the music fresh, without getting distracted by outdated stereotypes. Back in the day, Pavement got constantly tagged as supposed spokesdudes for Gen X ennui, a hack cliche that never had a thing to do with the openhearted range of their work. But the music has long outlasted the cliches. A huge percentage of the past decade’s best tunes come from young female guitarists taking inspiration from Pavement.
Case in point: the Pavement pop-up museum in TriBeCa, which opened just for the weekend, curated by filmmaker Alex Ross Perry for his upcoming movie on the band. “Pavements 1933-2022: A Pavement Museum” (“New York—London—Tokyo—Stockton”) was a romp through their history. Some of the artifacts were real, like posters and flyers; some were faked, like the vodka ad (“Absolut Pavement”), or the Playbill for the Broadway musical Slanted! Enchanted! Some you couldn’t even tell, as with the toenail clipping from original drummer Gary Young. “On loan from a private collector” — riiiight. On Saturday afternoon, the installation had fantastic indie bands like Snail Mail, Speedy Ortiz, Soccer Mommy, and Bully playing sets of Pavement covers. Snail Mail did a damn fine “Starlings in the Slipstream,” while Soccer Mommy nailed “Gold Soundz.” (Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis used to play in an all-female tribute band called Babement.) At the end, all four frontwomen got together to jam on “Grounded,” with the members of Pavement in the crowd cheering.
For fans around the world who’ve followed this tour via YouTube, since it kicked off on the West Coast this summer, it’s been an adventure to see Pavement keep throwing in more songs. On Monday night, they finally brandished the Wowee Zowee nugget “AT&T.” The night before, Malkmus apologized for not playing it, but admitted he was still figuring out the riff. That happens. On Sunday night, he charged into “Cut Your Hair,” telling the band, “I’m fucking ready!” Except it sputtered apart after a few seconds, because he wasn’t fucking ready.
The crowd’s enthusiasm was contagious — for one thing, it’s bizarre how phoneless these shows felt. For minutes at a time, for entire songs, you could look around and see thousands of people listening to music in the dark, without a single screen. There was no request from the band about this, no phone pouches. People were just there-there, you know? They got out their phones, took their photo, then just put them away. It was a strangely beautiful part of the full-immersion sonic experience — the “come join us in a prayer” vibe.
They closed the run with “Fillmore Jive,” the dirge with the famous epitaph “Good night to the rock & roll era.” That joke hit differently in the Nineties, the all-time zenith for the rock & roll era in terms of both sales and art. But Malkmus changed it to “rock & roll errors,” while Spiral Stairs did a Hendrix-style display of playing guitar behind his head. Eras end, but errors roll on forever, which is what keeps things interesting.
There was an oddly touching moment when Malkmus and Nastanovich cracked jokes about Monday Night Football and the Buffalo Bills. Bob started reminiscing about a Buffalo gig they played in 1994, as other band members chimed in, with mentions of dead friends who were there. It was enough to remind those of us who aren’t musicians: Oh yeah, this is why it can be tough for bands to play together again. Messy memories. Shared histories. There’s a lot of past tangled up in that music. You really have to love these gold sounds to go all the way back into them, the way Pavement did night after night.
A moment that hits harder than ever: “Shoot the Singer,” when those elegiac guitars kick in and Malkmus laments, “I’ve seen saints, but remember that I forgot to flag them down as they pass.” When he first sang that line, in 1992, he made it sound like the essence of boyish yearning. Yet now it seemed to encapsulate the emotional urgency of these shows. It was a reminder that you miss 100 percent of the saints you don’t flag down. And we were grateful Pavement chose this moment to stick a flag on these songs.